Monday, April 26, 2004

Whilst the rest of the country debates the pressing issue of ID cards (which, by the way, I do have strong opinions about - but I'll save that for another occasion), I'm currently debating (with myself) whether to spend my money on going to see Kill Bill vol. 2. My tendency towards cynicism has lead me to become increasingly aggravated with the marketing campaign that has accompanied Harvey Weinstein's slashing of the film into two halves. Let's have double the number of promotional appearances, double the number of excessively gushing reviews, two soundtrack albums, double the box office takings. After all, it makes good commercial sense. More significantly, I have substantial misgivings as to whether Tarantino's undeniable qualities as a director (a kinetic visual style, sharp, brazen dialogue, considerable energy) are really enough to ensure a place in the pantheon of greatness. It's all very well to know and love cinema - and to reference it compulsively, but that only works when the basic idea behind the surface sheen is coherent and compelling.

I went into Kill Bill Volume One expecting to love it. What could be better than Uma Thurman brandishing a samurai sword? Whilst it did offer visceral thrills aplenty, there was something missing, and the end result felt to me slightly hollow and indulgent. It offered a very macho revenge fantasy, but simply with a woman carrying out the vengeance. Much of the thrill came from the rabid, grandiose and highly choreographed violence - in fact, the violence provided so much of the film's entertainment that it almost felt pornographic and degrading. This is not to say that I support film censorship, or even abhor the use of cinematic violence. Violence penetrates our world every day, and film-makers as artists may well have something interesting to say about it. Yet, Kill Bill had precious little substance. It didn't dwell too heavily on why Thurman's Bride wanted revenge - only that her actions perpetuated a grim cycle of impulsive, unpreventable violence. She is so ruthless and single-minded in her desire to confront and kill that she almost seems deluded. Compared with Michael Haneke's 'Funny Games' a horrifyingly nasty, but defiantly intelligent examination of apparently motiveless violence which makes its audience complicit in acts of sadistic torture, Tarantino's film seems to give viewers what they want, without ever stopping to ask why they might want it.

Despite these reservations - a niggling doubt remains. Volume One is only half the picture. What is revealed in volume two that might provide some depth or characterisation to this graphic comic book fantasy? Does it, as rumoured, contain more of Tarantino's trademark dynamic use of modern vernacular language? Does it provide us with more backstory? It's hard to see how Thurman's inevitable confrontations with the remaining members of the Deadly Viper Assasination Squad and, ultimately, Bill himself can be anything other than more of the same. If that is the case, then Kill Bill will be a complacent artistic failure (if a considerable commercial success), with considerable style but very little substance. Still, I must find the time to find out for myself...

Similar accusations of style over substance have been levelled at Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or winning film 'Elephant'. I saw it for a second time in a tremendously powerful double bill with Nick Broomfield's documentary 'Aileen: Life and Death of A Serial Killer' a couple of weeks ago. I was again struck by its chilling, yet etheral atmosphere, and the considerable originality of Van Sant's approach. It's hard to believe that this subtle, quietly compelling and considerably important film was made by the same person who oozed irksome sentimentality in 'Good Will Hunting' and 'Finding Forrester'. Some people seem to have reacted violently against this film, claiming that it is boring, or has little to say about school massacres in America, or both. This is a valid opinion - and I hence warned my friend that 'nothing happens until its inevitable end, when everyone gets shot.' I was delighted when he agreed that such a summary was somewhat crude.

Actually, lots of things happen in 'Elephant'. It is a vividly realised and highly evocative account of everyday high school life, sometimes banal, sometimes affecting - and how easily tragic violence can break into that world. It uses the resources of the cinema with consummate skill - long tracking shots follow unprofessional high school actors up stairs and along corridors, elegantly and naturally capturing the routine of the high school day and the physical environment. These shots, apparently inspired by elusive Hungarian director Bela Tarr, are so meticulously crafted that they have an entrancing beauty of their own. We know very little about the characters other than what we observe through the course of the terrible day that Van Sant films. We see John's problems with his alcoholic father, girls who eat lunch together, argue and then vomit in unison in the school toilets, Elias spends much of the day working on his photography portfolio. Events that may seem minor, such as the corridor greeting between Eli and John, are repeated from different angles, a technique that allows the film to invest considerable gravitas in ordinary lives. The soundtrack makes highly effective use of amplified ambient sound, and together with image, the film has a devastating cumulative effect. For me, the climax of this tightly controlled cinematic crescendo comes when the killers enter the library and, where others are paralysed in fear, Elias completes the final act of capturing them on camera. It's a fleetingly brief moment, but it emphasises perfectly the film's intention of capturing events on film, in a detached and non-judgmental style.

It offers a number of potential explanations as to why its teenage subjects may have been driven to mass murder - they are shown playing violent computer games, ordering weaponry from the internet and shooting targets, watching Nazi video footage and even showering together to release themselves from sexual repression. Van Sant remains admirably distant from any one explanation and instead leaves it entirely to individual viewers to reach their own moral conclusion. Yet, to argue that means that the film is entirely devoid of purpose or impact is arguably narrow-minded. It is not at all exploitative. At the heart of this film is the simple, stark observation that violence can claw into the most ordinary and calm of environments, and disturb them forever with menacing ease. It's a film of tremendous style - elegantly composed, intelligently structured and performed with naturalistic composure. It is also a chilling, provocative meditation on apparently random, motiveless violence.

As a 'fictionalised' account of a high school massacre, it made for an effective counterpoint to Nick Broomfield's documentary feature 'Aileen'. This was also an extraordinary film, and one that dares to pose important questions about the nature of truth, and the dangers of a complacent criminal justice system. It is difficult to know what to believe and what to regard in serial killer Aileen Wuornos' testimony - she repeatedly alters her story about whether or not she murdered in self defence, possibly in an attempt to bring forward the date of her execution and end it all as swiftly as possible. Broomfield's documentary illuminates both the failings of the American justice system and also the failings of society at large (to which lawyers, judges and governors seem spectacularly blind). As America's first female serial killer, Wuornos had clearly been exploited by so many - movie-makers, police and fraudulent lawyers alike. She emerges from this film as an intense, frightening and deluded figure who has herself suffered greatly.

It's possible to argue that Broomfield presents nothing new here - we already know about the archaic, unflappable attitudes of Jeb Bush and the inherent problems with capital punishment. It's in his probing into Wuornos' life and his direct interviews with her that Broomfield is at his most fascinating. He clearly relishes uncovering terrible, grimly fascinating human stories. In previous films, he has risked trivialising his subjects with his deadpan voiceover, and obtrusive boom-microphone. In always showing himself and his equipment on film, I've occasionally felt that Broomfield has made himself his own subject at the expense of the incisiveness of his commentary. Not so, here. In this film, Broomfield is much less invasive, despite being called to appear at appeal hearings himself, and less prepared to take the testimony of others at face value. He has firm opinions and points to make, but is this time more questioning of his approach. The result is arguably his most effective and powerful documentary.

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